Out of the dark
More possible victims come forward after alleged sexual assault at Oroville business
Last week, a woman contacted the Oroville Police Department saying she’d been raped inside a local business. The woman told police she’d visited Table Mountain Tires and Smog that day for a smog inspection, according to an OPD press release. She says she was alone in the office with the shop’s owner, Lee Vang, when he allegedly made unwanted advances, eventually forcing himself upon and repeatedly sexually assaulting her.
News coverage of Vang’s arrest two days later led to a startling revelation—if the woman’s account is true, she may not be the only victim. Lt. Chris Nicodemus of the OPD said his office has interviewed one more possible victim and is in the process of finding and contacting others, a result he credited to the courage of the woman who reported being assaulted last week.
The case underscores the fact that sexual assault is regularly underreported and oftentimes reported late. Additionally, serial sexual assault by an easily identifiable perpetrator may sound like a sensational or unlikely scenario, but statistics show that, on average, rapists commit 50 sexual assaults before being caught. Furthermore, the victim and attacker know one another in an estimated 80 percent of rape cases. Those stats, and others, are available on the website of Rape Crisis Intervention and Prevention, a Chico-based agency dedicated to providing support for victims of sexual assault.
Rocky Cruz, the assistant executive director at Rape Crisis, said she’s far from shocked by any of the allegations in the Oroville case.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so, unfortunately, not much surprises me anymore,” she said. “These kinds of things happen in doctors’ offices and dental chairs all the time. Any person in any profession is capable of being a perpetrator, or a victim.”
Cruz said there are myriad reasons why assaults go unreported or are reported long after the crime was committed. One is the fact that the vast majority of assaults are carried out by people known to the victim: “I don’t think any of us like to admit that people we know, and especially the people we care about, love and respect, are predators,” she said.
Regardless of whether the perpetrator is known or not, Cruz said many assault victims often feel put on trial themselves.
“It’s hard to come forward, because the focus is often put on the victim and the ‘Why? Why? Why?’” she said. “Why was the victim in that place with that person? Why was the victim wearing what they were wearing? With no other crime in America do we blame the victim so badly.
“That’s partly why we see more victims reporting after another victim comes forward,” she continued. “They feel safer and think, ‘Maybe someone will believe me now.’”
Cruz’s organization provides victims with all of their options, and supports them regardless of what decisions they make. Statistically, Rape Crisis gets many more reports of sexual assault than law enforcement.
“This is something that happened to them and they alone need to decide whether to report the rape or not,” Cruz said. “When everything is said and done and all the hoopla has died down, they’re the ones who have to continue to live with the experience.”
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said late reporting of sexual assaults is a regular occurrence for his office. “It’s something we deal with every day,” he said. “It often takes some time for the victim to process what they’ve been through. There are many rational reasons for not running straight to the police, and we definitely understand that.”
Nicodemus didn’t say how many additional victims there could be in the Oroville case and refused to give other details, as the investigation is ongoing.
Part of the reason law enforcement is cagey with details in sexual assault cases—other than obvious privacy concerns—is to protect one victim’s account from influencing another, Ramsey said.
“If what a victim says is corroborated by other victims’ statements, like when multiple people describe the same unreported details or elements of the perpetrator’s modus operandi, it lends those details the sheen of truth,” he said.
Cruz noted that a law signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown—which took effect at the beginning of this year—eliminated a previously existing 10-year statute of limitations on rape.
“Now there’s no statute of limitations, just like murder,” she said. “That’s fitting because rape is like murder, but you’re left with walking dead. People who’ve experienced sexual assault … it changes them.”
DNA results obtained from the woman in the Oroville rape case as well as the suspect, Vang, will be available in about two weeks, according to Ramsey. Though such testing can sometimes take up to 18 months, he said it’s expedited here through a program called Rapid DNA Services. In 2013, Butte became one of eight California counties in which DNA testing in sexual assault cases is conducted directly by the state Department of Justice’s forensics lab in Richmond.
Vang, 44, is charged with sexual battery, assault with intent to rape, and three counts of sexual penetration by force. He was booked into the Butte County Jail on $190,000 bail and has since posted bail. Vang has no criminal history in Butte County, and is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 18, according to Ramsey.